Darin Strauss’s Memoir Half a Life: What Did He Owe the Zilkes?

Half a Life by Darin StraussThis week in the online memoir course I’m teaching, the students are working on characterization, both their own and that of others. We’re reading a chapter in Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington called “Writing about Living People,” in which she talks about how writers must come to their own decisions about their responsibilities to those whose lives are entwined with their own, and how one must balance the reasons for writing a story using real names against the harm that might be done to someone else.  I had thought this matter of what we owe people we write about was settled in my mind. I always counseled and taught that when writing about other people, one must try to arrive at the largest understanding and perspective, and while I didn’t think that was always easy, it seemed to me obvious and relatively simple.  Then last week I read a memoir by Darin Strauss called Half a Life, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and my complacency on the issue was given a good shake.

Half a Life is the story of how, when he was a senior in high school, Strauss was driving his dad’s Oldsmobile when a girl he barely knew, a junior at the same school, inexplicably swerved her bike across two lanes, collided with his car, and was killed.  Even though he was not responsible for the girl’s death, Strauss struggled with guilt that haunted him for decades.

I felt riveted by the writing and the story when I first started the memoir.  But I became troubled by Strauss’s writing about the girl’s family.  It has surprised and puzzled me how much this has bothered me. I won’t say it’s keeping me awake at night (other things do that), but I found myself thinking about it a good deal and feeling troubled by it. It has made me revisit the issue of the writer’s responsibility to other people.

Strauss first met the Zilkes when he attended Celine’s funeral, which was excruciating for him.  He acknowledges that his presence complicated Celine’s parents’ grief with the question of how they should treat him at the funeral.  “A possibly brave act for me, but awful for them.”

He describes the initial meeting with Mr. Zilke:

In the long moment before he found words, and as he took my hand, Mr. Zilke settled on an expression, a hard-won glint of: I will be friendlier than you have any right to expect me to be.

It occurred to me in reading this difficult scene that it was being filtered through a tremendously subjective narrator, which I suppose is true of everything in memoir. But I didn’t completely trust Strauss’s recounting of the encounter, wondering  if he had read something into Zilke’s expression based on his own guilt or on later feelings about the Zilkes.  It was a subtle thing, but it seemed slanted in a way that I didn’t trust.  I wondered how Mr. Zilke would remember the same incident.

At the funeral Celine’s mother says to Strauss that she knows it wasn’t his fault, but she wants him to promise something: whatever he does in his life, he must do it twice as well because he’s living for two people.  Strauss interpreted this as quite a burden to lay on an 18-year-old.  He describes her as looking at him as if to say, Why are you the one who is still alive?  But he doesn’t really know the Zilkes.  He’s just met them.  And Mrs. Zilke is at her daughter’s funeral, still shocked and stunned by grief;  perhaps she’d say anything.  I began to feel a little defensive on behalf of the Zilkes.  I felt sorry for them, and felt they were being portrayed somewhat unfairly.

At the funeral the Zilkes had invited Strauss to come by their house whenever he liked, so he thought he owed them a visit. He had expected something warm and cozy:  “They’d smile, maybe touch my cheek, we’d cry together.”  Apparently it was an awkward scene in which the Zilkes had a number of other people there, family members, fellow grievers, and they hadn’t been expecting Strauss. This was a few days after the funeral, and according to Strauss, Mr. Zilke announced to the group, “He’s here to say how sorry he is . . .To apologize.”  He offered Strauss a glass of ice tea and a coaster, and no one spoke a word.  When he showed Strauss to the door, Mr. Zilke said, “No matter what, we would never blame you, Darin.”

Strauss ends the description of this visit (and the chapter) with this dramatic line: “Five months later, I learned that Celine’s parents were suing me for millions of dollars.”  His anger and bitterness are evident, and perhaps rightly so.  The lawsuit dogged him for five years, creating enormous stress, before it suddenly collapsed.  Just hours before the trial was to begin, the Zilkes’ lawyer advised them to take the “go-away” money, minus his 30% of course.  There really was no case.

Maybe the problem here lies in me and not in Strauss.  There are awful people in the world.  Maybe the Zilkes are awful, or at least not very nice.  But they wouldn’t be the first people whose pain and loss resulted in anger and the desire to strike out, or to seek “justice,” even if misguided, through the legal system.  Maybe they were greedy and opportunistic, or under the thumb of a greedy, manipulative lawyer. Maybe they were heartbroken not only at their daughter’s death, but insulted that Strauss’s insurance company offered them $20,000 as the “go away” figure to avoid the “crapshoot” of a trial. Strauss says he feels sorry for the Zilkes, but he blames them as much as they blamed him.  He sees himself as the real victim.  In his late twenties, ten years after the accident, he writes:

Mrs. Zilke’s extracted promise felt immutable. Each equivocation and hedge, every dawdle, each dereliction and misdemeanor – all the human stuff of growing up – seemed to count against me on some celestial checklist.  I’d later think of Celine at my wedding and when my wife told me that she was pregnant.  Name an experience: it’s a good bet I thought of Celine while experiencing it.

I wrote in the margin next to this passage, “What does he expect?”  Why would he think he wouldn’t think of the young woman whose death he was involved in during these milestones of his life? Celine and her death were a part of him, as other formative experiences become a part of us.  I don’t quite trust that Mrs. Zilke’s “extracted promise” permeated his life to the extent that he claims.  At some point wouldn’t he have let the Zilkes off the hook a bit?  Understood their pain and loss more?

But of course that wasn’t his story, or the way he experienced it. He had a right to write his story as he felt about it.  But it was interesting to me how I separated from Strauss to some extent, extending my sympathy to the Zilkes, perhaps because he didn’t.  I’m sure not every reader would respond as I did.  A case can be made that the Zilkes were shits.  Still, it’s interesting to note that, at least in this case, if a reader feels a memoirist isn’t trying for the largest understanding and perspective regarding key players, the reader may do it for him.

I wonder why Strauss never contacted the Zilkes again.  I understand the obvious reasons.  But I wonder why, in coming to terms over many years with this huge event in his life, he didn’t want to sit down with them, have some human contact, maybe forgiveness on both sides.  And there is also the complicated matter that in publishing this memoir as it is written, he probably reopened a wound for the Zilkes. Not only to lose a daughter so tragically, but then to show up in a award-winning memoir twenty years later, looking like jerks.  Jerks without a voice to tell their own story.

Maybe that’s just the price of literature.  Maybe it’s like what Faulkner said about the “Ode to a Grecian Urn” being worth any number of old ladies.

I don’t pretend to have the answers.  It’s just that Half a Life disturbed me in a way I wasn’t expecting.  It raised anew for me the matter of a writer’s responsibilities to those we write about, and how complicated that can be.  Could Strauss have told his story in a way that did not portray the Zilkes in a negative light? Why should he, given how he felt about them?  If he had gone easier on them, or shown more compassion and understanding for them, would that have skewed his story falsely?

Did he owe the Zilkes anything, and if so, what?


Addendum: I posted this last night, and this morning I realized I hadn’t read the supplementary material at the back of the memoir–an essay by Strauss and an interview with him by Colum McCann.  I want to add what Strauss said about contacting the parents prior to the memoir’s publication:

“…when the book was about to come out, I wanted to write the parents a letter, a warning.  Of course, they’d sued me after having said they knew I was blameless–and promising they would always support me.  But I never blamed them for anything. (How could I? They’d lost a daughter, and I was walking around.) So I wanted to spare them the pain of being surprised by the book.  But the simple act of Googling them and writing the letter was hard– harder than writing the book.  It never goes fully away.”

I dunno.  I think it’s interesting that he blames them and then says he never blamed them.  At least that’s how I read this.  And it’s still all about him.  Writing the letter was hard for him–how was it for them receiving it?  I assume they didn’t respond to it, though he doesn’t say.  Still, it was definitely admirable that he wrote them to warn them about the book coming out.  There are not simple or easy ways of dealing with all this.

17 Replies to “Darin Strauss’s Memoir Half a Life: What Did He Owe the Zilkes?”

  1. "Still, it’s interesting to note that, at least in this case, if a reader feels a memoirist isn’t trying for the largest understanding and perspective regarding key players, the reader may do it for him." — Brava, Paulette!

    1. Agreed. And it seems that is what bothers you Paulette. I also am stuck by the fact that the writer is still so young– you say he wrote this in his twenties. Ten years may not be enough time yet. Would be interesting to see how he sees this after many more decades of life with his own child.

      1. I didn't make it very clear, but he was in his late twenties when he wrote that passage about Celine's mother's extracted promise staying with him. It appears he wrote the book in his mid-thirties. He refers to having lived with the accident for more than half his life–so if he was 18, he'd be at least 36 when narrating the book. The accident took place in 1988 and the book was published in 2010, which would put him at 40 when it was published. But you raise such a good point — that having his own children (twins) might indeed influence his feelings about other parents. He does speak in a interview at the back of the book about how impending fatherhood tended to focus the mind, and how he realized he could never truly comprehend how awful the Zilkes' loss had been.

  2. Thanks, Paulette — I read this book a couple of years ago and had the exact same reaction. There was much that I admired about it, but I remembered thinking that how he wrote about the Zilkes was troubling to me, and I couldn't quite put my finger on why, and for that reason I didn't embrace the story as fully as I might have…it's almost as if he missed an opportunity there. You articulate the issue very clearly! Thanks.

    1. Oh Gary, I can't tell you how much knowing you had the same reaction is helpful to me. Yes, I agree there is much to admire about the book. But I ended up not liking Strauss very much By the end of the book, I was thinking "get the hook!" I was sick of Darin. Thanks for letting me know your feelings. Very helpful.

  3. Thought provoking, especially as I think of my own memoir, and whether I've succeeded in going for the "largest understanding." As you say, the reader will pick up on a skewed view. I wonder how the author feels about the Zilkes "now" as opposed to "then" and if he would write a different memoir. Lots to think about, thank you!

  4. Paulette, I have read and taught this memoir several times, and your reaction, while understandable, is so foreign to my experience of it and that of my students. But this is what makes memoir memoir, the persona the writer creates and each reader's processing, reacting, and interpreting of it.

    And I do concede that the Zilkes come off poorly—was that fair or not? Only Strauss knows, if he does; my sense as a reader was that he was fair, and their actions tend to support that interpretation. Pursuing the lawsuit and wrecking Strauss's young life, for instance, when he was cleared of any fault. Yes, grief can explain this, in fact probably does explain it, but may not excuse it: for whatever reason, they did behave badly in the wake of an accident their daughter caused that cost her her life.

    I am stunned by these differences in reaction and interpretation. For example, this semester I taught Cheryl Strayed's WILD to a class of freshmen. Only two liked it, and 14 were either indifferent or hostile. They found her self absorbed and whiny, much like your characterization of Strauss. I may try the memoir again with a class, since I love it almost as much as Half a Life, but not with freshmen! Of five memoirs, it was their least favorite, and I thought they'd love it the most.

    1. I'm so glad you weighed in, Richard, because I knew you'd have read it and have an opinion. I'll have to see if you've blogged about it. I've avoided reading any other reviews of it until I posted about it. I can see that I felt sorry for the Zilkes in a way others might not. When I talked to Jeff about it, he said, "Would you have sued?" No, I don't think so. But I just have this feeling that the Zilkes weren't so one-dimensional, and it seems to me Strauss clings to what they said about not blaming him way too long, without understanding that people say things, they change their minds, they're complex, human, fallible, etc. They can also rise to the occasion, which the Zilkes did not. I'm fascinated by your experience with WILD! Is that because the students haven't experienced grief the way she did with her mother's death? Wow, people really respond so differently to memoirs (and novels)– it's mind-boggling. I started out being bowled over by Half a Life, and it is wonderfully written. But I came to have trouble with Strauss's persona. It's interesting too, that you say Celine caused the accident–as if on purpose? Do you think she committed suicide? One of her friends thought so, according to the interview. By the way, I've added an addendum to my post, after reading the interview at the back of the book. Thanks for your thoughts, Richard, always valuable.

      1. I am not sure if she tried to kill herself, but recall that after the book came out Strauss got more information that led him to believe that more strongly. It was in a British review or interview, as I remember. It did seem intentional because even if she missed her pedal and lost control, one would think she could have gotten it under control in the empty lane—or would have shown some sign that somebody remembered. Come to think of it, wasn't she riding with a friend? IF so, the friend must have seen no reason.

        I have taught it at least five times and probably six, and think only one student had your reaction. And I can't influence them much, as their response to WILD showed. I am not sure why they hated her; one mentioned how bizarre it was that she ate part of her mother's remains, though they seemed to accept the depth of her grief. They just didn't like her, something put them off. Some of them have experienced death and grief, too.

  5. ocdtalk –Janet — thanks for your thoughts on this. I screwed up something so I can't reply directly to your comment, thus this new comment. I hope you won't worry too much about going for the "largest understanding" — I fear I've made you self-conscious about it! It is true that the reader may want to defend someone he or she feels the writer is "beating up on." I've wondered if it's because Strauss knew the Zilkes so little that I felt defensive on their behalf. Maybe there was something about their loss that just got to me, made me protective of them. I'm probably getting myself in trouble here, but maybe when one writes about a family member, a spouse, a parent, say, they may know that person so much better and have such a deep, personal knowledge that entitles to some "beating up" if that is the truth of the matter–in the case of violent or horrible people, for example. There was something about how little he knew the Zilkes that bothered me. Still, even with the horrible parent, say, there is that need to try for as much understanding as possible. I guess I still come down on the foot of trying to understand why people do the things they do. Maybe that makes me let them off the hook too much. Like you say, food for thought! And what an interesting one–along the lines of Janet Gary's comment– of wondering how time and age would change Strauss's view of certain things. Thanks, Janet.

  6. I'm sorry you found the book's portrayal of the Zilkes to be lacking in compassion. I can assure you that wasn't the intent behind my writing; there were things i left out, facts that would have put them in a harsher light, etc. But I chose to skip these, out of a kind of deference. What I do mention over and again is that I don't blame them. And that I am not angry — as I say in the book, who knows how I would've reacted in their position? (I was angry at their lawyer — for their sake, as well as for mine.) They lost a daughter. But the fact remains that they hid info for the lawsuit that they knew exonerated me; that they told me they wouldn't blame me, and then did — and did sue me for a ruinous sum. You seem to fault me for not writing about things from the Zilkes' side. I'm not sure how writing their thoughts and emotions would've been possible, unless I moved the book to the fiction shelf. (This is possibly irrelevant, but most readers asked me why i wasn't MORE angry — at the girl herself, at the parents, etc. That line of questioning was confusing to me too. but there it is.)

  7. Also: I suppose what gets me steamed is: your implication that I describe them as "shits." I contorted my memoir — and the facts of my memoir — to do just the opposite. I write many times about how they are NOT shits. (And again, I concealed info that would have made them look more like shits.) But i don't know how I would have acted in their situation, and so I can't judge them. I write that. (This also may be inadmissible as evidence, but it makes me sleep soundly, anyhow: I heard after the book's publication from friends and family members of the girl who died, thanking me for being fair-minded.)

    1. Hi, Darin,

      Perhaps the only good thing that came out of this tragedy is that you wrote a fine memoir that you can be proud of, and that maybe brought you some peace. As far as I can tell–from the review excerpts in my paperback copy (and no, I didn't discard it when I recently cleaned out my bookcase), it's received fantastic praise and acclaim, and deservedly so. Mine is only one take on it, and on only one aspect. And as I know you know, you can't control what any one reader will bring to a book. I did feel sorry for the Zilkes, and I imagine you felt both compassion towards them and anger. They're not mutually exclusive. You had every right to be angry at them. Maybe it would have helped a reader like me if you had said you were angry at them or blamed them for their actions. But if that's not how you felt, so be it. I didn't mean to suggest that you could or should write about their emotions and thoughts. Maybe you could have speculated on them, which is done in memoir all the time. But if you had to fake it it would have come out as phony bullshit. It is a shame, and I suspect you feel this too, that you all could never meet face to face, and perhaps forgive each other or at least acknowledge mutual pain. It's harder to hold on to anger in the presence of another human being. But they ruined that opportunity via their law suit, and that's just another sad part of all this. At any rate, thank you for your follow-up comments. I should say that in addition to feeling sorry for the Zilkes, I certainly feel compassion for you too. Your memoir is an eloquent testament to the pain you experienced over this awful accident.

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